WSIS: An alternative vision

Dec 22 2003

World Summit on the Information Society: From heated debate to tepid commitments

Sally Burch

Phase one of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concluded in Geneva on December 12, with the adoption of a Declaration and Plan of Action, which outline policy for global management of information and communications technologies (ICTs) and propose actions to “bridge the digital divide”, with the declared intention of contributing to development goals and social inclusion. Civil society organizations, meanwhile, adopted their own Declaration expressing an alternative vision and proposals.

The tepid commitments contained in the official documents indicate feeble political will of the world’s leaders, which was ratified by the absence at the Summit of the heads of State or government of most of the world’s most influential nations. The adoption of the final documents ­ which only one week earlier seemed headed for failure- have nonetheless forestalled what could have been a new set-back for multilateralism, already badly shaken in recent months. Moreover, although many of the actors participating in the process find the results largely unsatisfactory, most seem to consider that they express a compromise solution that is more acceptable than earlier drafts.

But for many Southern governments it is a bitter disappointment that their two main demands have been postponed to a future date, under the pretext of remitting them to working groups for further study: these are a revision of the mechanisms of Internet governance and a commitment to creating a Digital Solidarity Fund.

In the first case, it was agreed to set up a working group, (with participation of governments, private sector and civil society from both developed and developing countries) that will examine technical and public policy issues of Internet governance and present a report to the second phase of the Summit, to be held in Tunis in November 2005. Although this means delaying any decision, it is nonetheless a small achievement that the US government finally acceded to even discuss the matter, since it has been fiercely defending the status quo, which in practice means that it controls most aspects of Internet governance, hand-in-hand with US corporations, through the organization ICANN, responsible for assigning Internet names and numbers and the root servers, most of which are situated in that country.

On the issue of financing for ICT development in the South, developing country governments failed to gain the support of those of the developed world, who grudgingly agreed to set up a Task Force under the auspices of the UN Secretary- General, that will review the adequacy of existing funding mechanisms, by December 2004. The Geneva and Lyon municipal governments, however, together with the government of Senegal, agreed to launch the solidarity fund without waiting for the results of the review, and between them have committed a first one million euros. Lyon hosted, the previous week, a World Summit of Cities and Local Authorities on the Information Society.

The announcement of several “partnership agreements” for financing activities in developing countries helped to disguise the lack of commitment to the solidarity fund, that would be at least partly controlled by the South. These include the US government announcement of a 400 million dollar support facility to encourage US investment in the telecommunications and IT sectors of developing countries (on a bilateral basis); or the billion dollar programme announced by Microsoft in partnership with UNDP, to provide ICT skills to “underserved communities” over a 5-year period. One might be justified in asking whether subsidizing northern companies to improve their sales to developing countries is in the interest of development. Or whether it is an appropriate role for the UN to be espousing the interests of transnational corporations in extending their monopolies to such areas.

Contrary visions

The final documents are in many ways a collage of contrary positions. The private sector agenda is most in evidence in those sections of the Geneva Declaration and Plan of Action relating to infrastructure development and the regulatory environment, which refer to a supportive and pro-competitive framework for investment and e-business and reaffirm the existing intellectual property rights regime. In fact participation of the private sector, as an actor in its own right, and the accreditation to the WSIS of individual private sector firms (contrary to UN Ecosoc regulations) have set a worrying precedent at this Summit, reinforcing the trend within the UN to bring multinational corporations to sit at the table with governments to define global governance issues.

Civil society, formally the third actor invited to the table, has in practice had to fight at every stage to make itself heard. It succeeded, nonetheless, in making an impact on the vision and principles sections of the Declaration, as well as in introducing a number of proposals relating to social issues.

The resulting documents are often contradictory; and the principles expressed in the Declaration are not always carried through to the policy proposals of the Action Plan. Thus, the first article of the Declaration affirms “our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and people to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life…”. But in its first article, the Plan of Action limits this vision to “promoting the use of ICT- based products, networks, services and applications” to achieve development goals. Similarly, the targets contained in the Action Plan, to be attained by 2015, are almost all related only to ICT connectivity.

The Declaration and Plan of Action do include sections on a number of other aspects, however, and incorporate several of the proposals supported by civil society. The infrastructure section, for example, supports universal access to ICTs, mentions the importance of standardization and calls for establishment of regional backbones and exchange points, that would allow traffic to stay within each region rather than being routed via the US. On “Access to information and knowledge”, lip service is paid to developing the public domain and governments are encouraged to make public information more accessible. There is support for the creation of open access publications and archives for scientific research, and at least a summary reference to the need to have different software options, including free and open source software. In “Capacity building”, there is a call for extending literacy and education, training ICT professionals in developing countries, and promoting ICT research and development capacity in such countries.

The section on “Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs” has been one of the most polemical. There are fears that the references to “information security” might be used to justify monitoring and surveillance of citizens. And while the Plan of action proposes legislation to fight against cybercrime and the “misuse” of ICTs, it only proposes to “promote user education and awareness” in relation to protecting privacy.

There are recommendations for mobilizing ICT solutions in areas such as health, employment, the environment, agriculture, science and e-government, among others. And a specific section is dedicated to cultural and linguistic diversity and local content, which mentions, among other things, cooperation with indigenous peoples and measures to preserve cultural heritage and to stimulate creation. There is also a mention of supporting media based in local communities, which is the only reference to community media in the documents, despite intensive lobbying by the community radio sector.

The section specifically on the media, which entailed one of the most heated debates, encourages domestic legislation to guarantee the independence and plurality of the media; but also a call for “the responsible use and treatment of information by the media in accordance with the highest ethical and professional standards”, which media organizations oppose as they consider it an invitation to governments to exercise censorship.

The section on the Digital Solidarity Agenda, although limited to encouraging governments to participate in the fund, also exhorts developed nations to fulfill their commitment to assign 0.7% of GNP to financing development and calls for new debt alleviation initiatives for highly indebted countries.

In summary, most actors in the process will be able to find language that they can use as support for their agendas, and to leverage support from governments and international institutions, even though the documents are not binding. But many other issues are absent or inadequately dealt with and overall there is little coherence, to the point where attempts to conciliate opposed viewpoints can result in outright contradictions.

Beyond the specific results, the simple fact of having opened a space within the multilateral framework of the UN to initiate a debate on these issues is not a negligible step, at a time when there is an increasing trend towards the privatization of policy and the imposition on the rest of the world of agreements made among Northern governments.

The Civil Society Declaration

For civil society, although it has been a process fraught with frustrations, it has also allowed resulted in new, although tenuous, inroads for influencing UN decision- making. But above all, it has been an invaluable opportunity to meet, network, debate, elaborate an alternative vision and translate it into concrete proposals. This was evident in the civil society plenary session on December 8 where the Declaration, entitled: “Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs” (http://alainet.org/active/show_news.phtml?news_id=5118), was unanimously adopted, and in the festive character of the launch of this Declaration, on December 11. The document was also presented formally to the closing session of the Summit with the request that it be considered one of the official outputs of the process. Without a doubt, it will be a significant reference document for the next phase of the Summit, as well as a means of leveraging broader public awareness of the issues.

This Civil Society Declaration develops the people-centred vision in greater depth, and then translates it into principles and areas for action, consequent with that vision. It situates the principles within a framework of social justice and sustainable development. And it details specific human rights that have particular relevance to the information society, such as freedom of expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs and the rights of workers, indigenous peoples, women, children and persons with disabilities.

The CS Declaration underlines that “The regulatory and legal framework in all information and communication societies must be strengthened to support broad-based sharing of technologies, information, and knowledge, and to foster community control, respectful of human rights and freedoms.” It sustains that: “Knowledge creation and acquisition should be nurtured as a participatory and collective process and not considered a one-way flow”. And it urges attention to both “the potential positive and negative impacts of ICTs on the issues of illiteracy in regional, national and international languages of the great majority of the world’s peoples.”

The CS Declaration emphasizes community involvement in developing solutions using ICTs, for which: “they must be empowered to develop their own productive forces and control the means of production within information societies. This must include the right to participate fully in the development and sustenance of ICT-based projects through democratic processes, including decision making…”

While the potential of media and communications to promote peace is recognized and encouraged, a matter of special concern is the deployment of information warfare technologies and techniques, “including the purposeful jamming, blocking, or destruction of civilian communication systems during conflict situations; the use of ’embedded’ journalists coupled with the targeting of non-embedded journalists; the use of media and communication systems to promote hatred and genocide; by military, police, or other security forces, be they governmental, privately owned, or non-state actors, during conflict situations…”

A priority for civil society is the development and non- privatization of knowledge: “Human knowledge is the heritage of all humankind and the reservoir from which all new knowledge is created. The preservation of cultural and linguistic diversity, the freedom of the media and the defense and extension of the public domain of global knowledge are as essential, for information and communication societies, as the diversity of our natural environment.”

Community media are particularly defended, as they can be “vital enablers of information, voice and capacities for dialogue. Legal and regulatory frameworks that protect and enhance community media are especially critical for ensuring vulnerable groups access to information and communication.”

There is also a critique of the concept of “intellectual property rights”, which civil society organizations prefer to call “limited intellectual monopolies”. These are granted “only for the benefit of society, most notably to encourage creativity and innovation. The benchmark against which they must be reviewed and adjusted regularly is how well they fulfill this purpose. Today, the vast majority of humankind has no access to the public domain of global knowledge, a situation that is contributing to the growth of inequality and exploitation of the poorest peoples and communities.”

Free software is especially recommended, for its freedom of use for any purpose, study, modification and redistribution and its “unique social, educational, scientific, political and economic benefits and opportunities” as well as its special advantages for developing countries. Governments are encouraged to promote the use of Free Software in schools and higher education and in public administration.

Recommendations in relation to infrastructure and access focus on greater control by communities and developing countries; while proposals relating to policy emphasize civil society participation in decision-making. The Declaration recalls that “civil society actors have been key innovators and shapers of the technology, culture and content of information and communication societies, and will continue to be in the future.”

Many of these innovations were on show at the Summit, which included more than 200 side events, including panels and forums, and a parallel ICT for development exhibition, open to the public. Participants concurred that this part of the Summit was far more dynamic and where real discussions of the issues were taking place. These included the World Forum on Communication Rights, organized by the Campaign for Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) and other organizations, and the Community Media Forum. Some of these events were already looking to the next phase of the Summit; but one theme ran through many of the exchanges: the agreement that these issues are far too important to be limited to the sphere of the Summit and that the debate needs to be extended to a much broader public arena.

“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-sutrh relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio

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